Shameful and dehumanizing

City leaders punish homeless people for having bodily functions at night

During the Chico City Council’s regular Tuesday meeting, Carrington Forbes, a formerly homeless man, stood at the podium and described in detail the indignity he felt when downtown business owners refused to allow him to use their restrooms. Forbes has Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, and he recalled the pain and humiliation of that experience.

Like others in the homeless community, he had nowhere to go during the evenings. That’s because the city locks its public restrooms at night. That means the folks who live on Chico’s streets have no choice but to relieve themselves outdoors—in such places as Bidwell Park, along the creeks and, as local business owners and residents know all too well, in the doorways of shops and alleyways behind homes.

Forbes wasn’t the only speaker during the evening who advocated for Chico’s leaders to provide the community with 24-hour restrooms. Everyone who came before the panel made a case for such basic amenities, though not everyone agreed whether the panel should direct staff to upgrade and open existing facilities or provide new ones elsewhere.

Since it appeared the city was going to kick the can down the road on a permanent solution, Councilwoman Tami Ritter made a motion that the city provide a temporary porta-potty at the Municipal Center parking lot. Councilman Andrew Coolidge seconded her motion, noting that it was important to put into place a stop-gap measure, especially considering that the council had minutes earlier expanded a law that penalizes people for relieving themselves outside.

Indeed, at the same meeting, the council, in its infinite wisdom of once again picking the lowest-hanging fruit, voted to expand citywide its anti-homeless ordinance—the Offenses Against Waterways and Public Property initiative (see Howard Hardee’s report on page 8). That law is already on the books in certain areas of the city—the so-called Civic Center (City Hall, City Plaza, council chambers) as well as Chico’s creeks. The ordinance is hyped as a tool for local law enforcement to curb certain “conduct,” but based on its language, which includes prohibiting camping and the storage of personal property on public land, the law targets the city’s destitute.

It’s another step toward giving Chico a poor reputation and inviting a lawsuit based on civil rights violations. That’s because, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, government entities cannot lawfully criminalize behaviors required for basic survival without providing alternatives. Doing so violates Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Here in Chico, the Torres Community Shelter, a dry shelter, cannot accommodate the entire homeless community, and the wet one, Safe Space, is now closed for the season. That leaves at least 50 people—and probably many more—without a roof over their heads at night, meaning they will have to camp and relieve themselves in the outdoors.

Beyond the legal implications of the panel’s votes Tuesday evening are the moral ones.

The result will be the continued dehumanizing of an already vulnerable and marginalized population. We were particularly disgusted by the ease with which Chico’s mayor, Mark Sorensen, dismissed the fact that the city was in effect asking the police to enforce laws related to public urination and defecation while simultaneously denying people a place to relieve themselves. Sorensen said he was in opposition to that sort of activity, as though people without access to restrooms have a choice.

The mayor and the others who’ve supported anti-homeless measures can bleat all they want about this law applying to everyone in Chico. That’s absolutely ridiculous. People with homes have a place to go to the bathroom and store their belongings, so the law will not affect them. Furthermore, all of the discussions have revolved around the problems associated with people living on the streets. The fact is, this law criminalizes homelessness.

The decisions the council made Tuesday evening are cruel and shameful and yet another black eye for the city of Chico.